Separate but Equal

*Despite all the changes in most of the country, for blacks, especially in the South, things stayed much the same.


*Almost as soon as Reconstruction ended, blacks in the US, especially in the South began to see their new freedoms vanish once again.  Throughout the South, Jim Crow Laws, a variety of laws much like the old black codes, sprang up to keep the black people from exercising many of their new rights. 


*Voting restrictions were common.  One common form was the poll tax, which required voters to pay a fee.  This was always large enough to keep out most blacks, and had the added benefit of keeping out many poor whites as well, although it was not uncommon to enforce the laws selectively.  Another restriction was the literacy test, in which prospective voters had to demonstrate they could read, which often kept out blacks, who were usually denied much education by the lack of public schools for them.  It was not uncommon to give white voters very easy things to read, while giving something different and much harder to black voters.


*Segregation also became common after the Civil War.  It was first instituted in Massachusetts in the 1830s to keep blacks and whites in separate train cars, but the South adopted the idea quickly.  In the South, white and black people used different schools, railroad cars, water fountains, bathrooms, and even different sections in hospitals, theatres, and churches.


*Several attempts were made to overturn segregation, and the most important was the case of Plessy v Ferguson, which went to the Supreme Court in 1896.  Homer Plessy, a very pale black man, had attempted to ride in a white section of a train to force a test case, and was arrested when he announced his race.  He appealed this case all the way to the Supreme Court.  The Supreme Court declared that it was legal to segregate, provided that the areas provided were ‘separate, but equal,’ possibly a good idea in theory, but hard to enforce, and the facilities given blacks were rarely equal to those enjoyed by whites.  Still, this decision would stand until 1954.


*Some African-Americans tried to change things.  Booker T. Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama.  Born a slave in Virginia, he had a pragmatic view of the daily life of black people in the South.  His goal was to educate African-Americans in trades so that they could gain economic independence—only then could they seek political and civil rights.


*Some people criticised Washington's willingness to accept social inequality, calling it 'the Atlanta Compromise,' after Washington gave a speech at The Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition in 1895, in which he said that it was wrong—and foolish, and dangerous—for white Americans to ignore the injustices done to black Americans, but in which he also admitted that it was useless for blacks to demand full equality immediately.


*The term 'Atlanta Compromise' was invented by W.E.B. Du Bois, an African-American from Massachusetts with a Ph.D. from Harvard (who did not have to face the constant oppression of blacks in the South, although he did face discrimination in the North, and had once taught in a rural Tennessee coloured school and seen Southern discrimination first-hand) who criticised Booker T. Washington for going along with political discrimination. 


*Some of this criticism was expressed in his book The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, which said that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line."  He traced the history of discrimination from the end of the Civil War to the 20th Century, and he blamed it on failures of the Freedmen’s Bureau (although it had great successes, too, particularly in founding Negro schools) and the national government to really solve the problems of Black folk, but since then on the rise of materialism and the role of a compromiser like Booker T. Washington as a spokesman for Black folk.  He also described Black culture, particularly Black religion and music.


*DuBois said African-Americans should demand full equality immediately and that it was the duty of the nation as a whole to make sure they got it.


*Ida B. Wells was one of those African-Americans who spoke out against discrimination.  She was born in Mississippi but moved to Memphis as an adult.  After friends of hers were attacked by a mob in 1892 she began to write about lynching in the South (although it occurred in many parts of the North as well).  Eventually she was run out of Memphis by people who got tired of her criticism.


*In 1908, Ray Stannard Baker (a white man) published Following the Color Line to examine racial relations in the US, focusing particularly on lynching.


*Lynching continued to be a problem in the United States for decades, and efforts to specifically outlaw lynching (as a crime separate from murder or manslaughter) were not undertaken by Congress until 1918, and then were blocked by Southern senators.  About 5,000 African-Americans were lynched between 1890 and 1960.


*In 1905, W.E.B. Du Bois and other African-Americans who wanted full civil rights right away met at Niagara Falls (on the Canadian side, because no hotel on the New York side would let them stay there).


*They called themselves the Niagara Movement.  Their primary sentiment was that Booker T. Washington’s plan of gradual progress was degrading, slow, and essentially a sell-out, as Washington compromised with whites by not asking for too much equality—Du Bois said that Washington’s approach could ‘create workers, but it cannot make men.’  (Washington, though, thought it was easy for Du Bois to take this attitude, as he had not grown up under slavery nor did he have to live with the daily pressures and prejudices of the South).  Furthermore, only a few hundred people joined the Niagara Movement, and on its own it never accomplished much.  However, it was one of the inspirations for one of the most important groups to work for African-American rights.


*In 1908, a white mob in Springfield, Illinois tried to break into a jail to lynch two black men accused of rape, attempted rape, and murder (who were safely removed by the Sheriff with the help of a local white restaurant owner, whose restaurant was soon burnt down in the race riot that followed and killed seven people).  Later, the man accused of rape was proven to be innocent and the charges were dropped; the man accused of attempted rape and of murder was found guilty and hanged.


*That such a race riot could happen in Abraham Lincoln’s home town horrified the Niagara Movement and white reformers, too.  In 1909, white and black reformers formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, meant to help African-Americans get better jobs, better education, equal rights, and an end to racial insults.  They also began publishing The Crisis, a magazine dealing with issues of interest to African-Americans.  The NAACP used the courts to try to get better treatment, and very slowly (over the course of 60 years or more) this approach achieved success.


*The NAACP mostly focused on the middle class, but in 1911 black workers in big cities formed the Urban League to focus on their needs.  It helped poor African-Americans buy clothes, send their children to school, and find jobs.  Both the NAACP and the Urban League are still active.


*Other groups tried to win more rights and better treatment as well.  Jewish Americans formed the Anti-Defamation League in 1913 to protect Jews from violence (which was once a problem—not only blacks, but also Jews, were attacked in the 1908 Springfield Race Riot), discrimination, and racial slurs (some of which are still common).


*Asian-Americans also had little success in protecting their rights in California.  The Chinese Exclusion Act had made immigration difficult for Chinese ever since 1882, but many Japanese left their newly-opened country for America.  Soon many Californians feared that the Yellow Peril would undermine their culture and take their jobs, or perhaps serve as spies for Japanese imperialists.  Soon California tried to limit the rights of Japanese in America, including requiring them to attend segregated schools in San Francisco after the Great Fire of 1906.


*This was seen as a deep insult by the Empire of Japan, which complained to president Theodore Roosevelt.  In 1907 they reached the 'Gentlemen's Agreement,' under which the US would protect the rights of Japanese-Americans (and not require their children to attend segregated schools), while Japan would keep its people from going to America unless they already had family there—which led to a new custom of Japanese men marrying 'picture brides' to create family ties between Japanese in Japan and America.  Japan did allow its people to keep going to Hawaii, whence some did go to the rest of the United States.


*This agreement led to the Root-Takahira Agreement of 1908, in which Japan and the USA agreed to recognise each other's territorial claims in the Pacific and the Open Door in China.


*Despite this, in 1913, California passed a law allowing only American citizens to own land.  Because Asian immigrants could not become citizens, many Chinese and Japanese lost their land, unless they could put it in their children’s names (because having been born in America, their children were American citizens).  Efforts for Asian-Americans to gain the right to become citizens were blocked by the US Supreme Court in 1922.


*Mexican-Americans also tried to form groups to promote their rights, but most of those formed in the early 1900s did not last long.  Their land was sometimes seized in the Southwest and many Mexican-Americans were required to sign long-term labour contracts much like those forced on African-Americans in the South.  In 1911 the Supreme Court outlawed these contracts.


*Furthermore, Mexican-American Octaviano Larrazolo was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, but lived most of his life in New Mexico and served one term as governor there (but was not nominated for a second term because of his support for women’s suffrage).  At the age of 70, he was elected to the US Senate—the first Hispanic-American to serve in that body—although he died only 6 months into his term.


*American Indians also formed groups to demand more rights, but the groups they formed in the early 1900s did not last long, either.  By 1924, though, the Indian Citizenship Act finally gave American Indians the right to be considered citizens and vote in national elections (although they were still often prevented from voting in local and state elections).

This page last updated 23 October, 2018.
Powered by Hot Air